Study: Seeing how sun exposure damages skin could prompt people to use protection

SALT LAKE CITY — Melanoma is on the rise, and it is no secret that Utahns are particularly at risk.

More now than ever before, according to Kevin John, assistant professor of communications and director of the eye-tracking lab at Brigham Young University. He said people in the Beehive State just aren’t taking care of themselves the way they should be, given the ever-increasing risk.

“We are in the middle of a melanoma epidemic and more needs to be done to cut down mortality rates,” John said.

He wants more people to get screened.

“The earlier you find melanoma, the more treatable it is … the longer you wait, the further it gets into the skin,” John said.

John and others at BYU’s biometrics lab and the University of Utah studied what could most effectively motivate people to be more proactive about their skin and found that showing them images of what sun does to unprotected skin, as well as images are taken of people after having cancerous or precancerous moles removed, motivates them to use sunscreen and/or avoid the sun.

“It gets people’s attention,” John said. “It’s enough to instill a little fear and increase expectations for them to screen themselves for cancer.”

An infrared camera picks up concentrations of melanin under the skin, showing where damage has occurred.

An image of John’s face shows what he says is “typical sun damage” for a 35-year-old, “but it looks pretty scary,” he said.

“It looks like a normal black-and-white photo at first glance,” he said. “If you look closer, you see pores among the bright light and sun damage appears as dark spots.” Ultraviolet photos of him wearing sunblock appear black, showing how effective sunscreen is at blocking UV light.

Those dark spots, however, are where the skin has already been damaged by UV rays.

Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Utah and across the United States, according to the Utah Cancer Action Network. Utah’s incidence of melanoma is highest in the country, and the Utah Department of Health reports that the number of cases continues to rise year after year.

Whether it’s because of climate change, other environmental differences, a high number of people of European descent living at high altitude, or something else, it can’t all be attributed to sun tanning and tanning beds, John said.

“In 1930, your chance of getting melanoma in your lifetime was 1 in 1,500,” he said. “Now, you have a 1 in 55 chance. That’s serious.”

To arrive at their conclusion — that images can elicit enough fear to result in more action when it comes to skin cancer — researchers showed 60 different images to more than 2,200 people across the U.S. The latest study is one of more than a dozen that fall under a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The study appears in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

Future studies might involve inviting participants to see their own skin using the VISIA UV complexion analysis system.

“We want to influence people to make the decision on their own to get screened,” John said, adding that 75 percent of melanomas are discovered by spouses, partners or friends. “Just get screened and tell your friends and family to get screened. Let’s prevent skin cancer from happening to anyone.”

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